Melinda French Gates is investing $1 billion of her own money for women in the United States. Here’s an inside look at her game plan
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It’s another gloomy day in Seattle, and the glistening gray surface of Lake Washington is barely distinguishable from the cloudy skies above. But Melinda French Gates has brought an air of sunshine to the room. She takes a seat, asks if it’s okay to remove her mask, and reveals the buoyant smile that’s beneath. The philanthropist says she’s still energized from a just-finished trip to Rwanda and Senegal—her first since the COVID pandemic immobilized the world more than two years ago. “It felt great to be back on the continent,” says French Gates, her eyes lighting up. “Just talking to the women, about how the norm is changing there for women’s roles, made it feel very hopeful.”
French Gates, 58, has been pushing society to rethink such norms for decades—advancing the premise that improving conditions for women is a key to attacking almost any social problem. She has “baked” gender into the myriad initiatives the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds, from efforts to fight infectious diseases to programs aimed at eradicating hunger. “There is a gender component to most strategies,” says French Gates, cochair of the behemoth nonprofit, which boasts an endowment of $53.3 billion and has a workforce of more than 1,700. “Like in the case of malaria, who hangs the bed net? You’re making a huge mistake if you’re not looking at gender here.”
French Gates is an eternal optimist; today, even her attire—a floral blouse with a flutter of bright purple, embroidered butterflies down the front—projects hopefulness. And she has made it her business to take on the most systemic and devastating of global problems with a combination of practicality and ambition. She quite literally gave the MasterClass on impactful giving—her 17-part tutorial launched in August on the streaming platform for expert-led workshops. And she’s certainly earned that “expert” status: The former Microsoft general manager (and former wife of Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates) cofounded the Gates Foundation more than 20 years ago. She has since devoted herself to improving the quality of life for women and families in the developing world, partnering with organizations from China to Burkina Faso to tackle poverty, disease, and social inequities.
But on this early September day, French Gates has come ready to talk about the work she’s doing closer to home. And even here, in the world’s wealthiest country, there’s more than enough to keep her busy. In fact, when it comes to women and equity, America is still wrestling with problems that many other countries resolved decades ago. The U.S. remains one of the only wealthy countries without a paid family leave law, French Gates notes. And when we meet, she’s still in disbelief over the Supreme Court’s June decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and invalidated the federal right of women to choose to terminate their own pregnancies. “It would be devastating in any country,” she says. “But to see it in the highest-income country in the world, to have had it on the books for that long and then roll it back—that’s an enormous setback to gender equality.”
Fixing those kinds of inequities is the purpose of Pivotal Ventures—French Gates’ smaller, less well known, but just as radically ambitious organization. She founded Pivotal in 2015, with the aim of improving women’s lives in the United States through a combination of investing and advocacy. In 2019 she committed $1 billion of her own money to Pivotal, to be spent over 10 years. (French Gates is Pivotal’s only limited partner; in late September, Bloomberg estimated her net worth at $10.2 billion.) Already, the 90-person firm has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in more than 150 organizations, both in the form of philanthropic giving and venture capital.
Pivotal, French Gates explains, is “about how we can get women and people of color further along in the United States, faster. For me, this really comes down to looking at key areas: tech, finance, media, politics. You get more equity in those four industries and you will change all of society.”
Don’t let the name fool you: Pivotal Ventures isn’t a venture capital fund in the traditional sense. While it makes investments in for-profit companies, it also gives money to nonprofits, funds advocacy work for women, and pursues all sorts of partnerships with other organizations, all with the aim of getting “more power in the hands of more people,” to use one of the organization’s favorite taglines. (Pivotal does not publicly break out exactly how much money goes to which of those sectors.)
One target of Pivotal’s multipronged approach: the so-called care economy, which encompasses both childcare and care for the elderly. It’s a major focus for Pivotal, French Gates explains, because caregiving demands are one of the biggest barriers holding women back from positions of power. (There are more than 53 million unpaid caregivers in the U.S., the majority of whom are women, according to a study by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP.) That’s why, for example, Pivotal in 2019 contributed to a $10 million funding round in Papa, a Miami-based company that connects college students to older adults who need assistance with transportation and household chores. “It’s basically taking two parts of the economy—young people with talent and energy and people who are homebound—and putting them together,” says French Gates. To find and support other startups in the space, Pivotal and a partner called Techstars created an accelerator program for companies that address the needs of older adults and their caregivers.
Innovative startups are only one aspect of Pivotal’s strategy. Since 2016, Pivotal has also supported bipartisan efforts to advance comprehensive federal paid family and medical leave policies, investing more than $65 million in leading policy centers and advocacy groups that are pushing for these services to become a nationwide reality.
The leave policies that Pivotal endorses would address both childcare and eldercare. “We often expect women to take care of both ends of the spectrum,” French Gates says. “So we’re trying to push.” But while this push is one of Pivotal’s biggest investments to date, it has yet to bear fruit at the federal level. Time after time in recent years, Congress has cut paid family leave measures from federal spending bills. The Inflation Reduction Act, which President Biden signed into law in August, was originally structured after Biden’s election to include a provision for paid family leave. But the long-awaited measure was cut at the eleventh hour.
French Gates has also pursued a many-faceted approach to the tech field, which has long lacked representation of women in general and women of color in particular. Pivotal acts as a limited partner to put money into the venture capital space—particularly in firms that over-index on startups led by founders from underrepresented groups. VC firms it has invested in include Magnify Ventures, Leadout Capital, and Chingona Ventures.
But the company is also working to build a better infrastructure for women founders. In early 2020, Pivotal invested $50 million in an initiative called Gender Equality in Tech Cities, which is designed to open more doors to women in tech through the development of more inclusive innovation hubs in Chicago and other U.S. cities. The firm has partnered with other organizations, like the nonprofit Break Through Tech, in order to push for these changes in the industry—and in particular, to provide an alternative to existing tech institutions that are male-dominated.
“To re-create Silicon Valley or to change it would be incredibly hard,” says French Gates. “But when you’re starting fresh and new, if you start with a model in this perspective, then I don’t think you’ll replicate the old one we had in Silicon Valley.”
Breaking down long-entrenched barriers has always been Pivotal’s mission. But in the past few years, French Gates says, new, unexpected obstacles have popped up with potentially devastating effects on women—none more so than new threats to reproductive rights. “You cannot roll back such an enormous health care law for women and say it’s not a major step back,” French Gates notes when asked about the impact of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, the case that toppled Roe. “You just can’t.” She says Pivotal is looking at a variety of ways to respond to this legal setback, including possibly investing in health-tech startups that are geared toward providing as much access as possible to women’s reproductive health information and services.
French Gates is quick to add, though, that this rollback is something startups alone can’t solve. “I look at the root cause,” she says. “What’s the systemic issue? The systemic issue is that we don’t have enough female politicians in our country. We’re not at gender parity, and we’re not close. So when I look at that Supreme Court bench, I think about how we got there and who put them on there. It was a male-dominated Senate that put them there.”
The only solution is a sweepingly ambitious one: a Congress whose membership mirrors the country’s demographics. “We have to get more funding for female politicians at all levels, and we have to look at the barriers that keep them from getting there,” she says. “Until we get women represented in all seats of power, you’re not going to have representation of society on the Supreme Court. Because if you look at how Americans actually feel about Roe v. Wade, no matter which side of the aisle they’re on, what was done doesn’t represent what people believe.”
French Gates has recently dealt with her own setbacks on the personal side. In May 2021, after nearly three decades of marriage, French Gates and her now ex-husband, Bill Gates, announced that they were getting divorced. The disruption was “unbelievably painful,” she says, as divorce usually is. But it hasn’t slowed French Gates’ efforts to improve the lives of women everywhere—abroad and at home. Her team says she is committed to both Pivotal’s domestic efforts and the Gates Foundation’s global work. The latter includes continuing to work in collaboration with her former spouse. “I kept working with the person I was moving away from, and I need to show up and be my best self every single day,” she says.
As she shuttles between her two roles, French Gates sees juxtapositions that many people never get to witness. And while the United States is certainly dealing with different issues than, say, societies in sub-Saharan Africa, there are also some striking similarities.
“When I was in Senegal, I was sitting with a group of women who were part of a women’s investment club,” says French Gates, recalling her recent trip. “And their businesses had been capitalized. But when I talked to them about what it took to get their businesses capitalized, I realized that I could have been sitting in Silicon Valley, talking to women about what it’s like to run the venture capital gauntlet. So here I am hearing the same thing in Senegal: They’re all up against a group of men who are saying, ‘You’re too risk averse.’ Or ‘You’re taking too much risk.’ ”
French Gates pauses before dropping another telling statistic: “Less than 4% of VC funding in the United States goes to women,” she says. “And that figure is 3.5% in Senegal. Boy, those are really close percentages.”
For this seemingly tireless investor, numbers like this are just a reminder of what her broad range of aspirations have in common. “All over the world we’ve set up these social norms, these barriers that hold women back, sometimes that are designed to hold women back,” French Gates says. “Women have to figure out ways to push through these structural barriers.” And, as she makes clear, Pivotal Ventures aims to be one of the battering rams that knocks down the barricades.
One partnership ends, another continues
French Gates spoke with Fortune about her divorce from Bill Gates, her cofounder and cochair at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Fortune: Over the past few years, you’ve had some enormous changes. COVID happened, and then, of course, your divorce. How do you think it changed the way you view the world or the way the world views you?
French Gates: I don’t really think about it, to be honest. Because I know who I am, and I know what I stand for. I had some reasons I just couldn’t stay in that marriage anymore. But the odd thing about COVID is that it gave me the privacy to do what I needed to do. It’s unbelievably painful, in innumerable ways, but I had the privacy to get through it. I also kept working with the person I was moving away from, and I need to show up and be my best self every single day. So even though I might be crying at 9 a.m. and then have to be on a videoconference at 10 a.m. with the person I’m leaving, I have to show up and be my best.
And I learned as a leader that I could do it. It reminded me that the foundation calls me to be my best. We work with unbelievable partners around the world who were also struggling during COVID. I was on a video call with a woman who had lost her father, and a week later she’s on a call with me, right?
My main concern, of course, was trying to protect my kids through it. And we got to the other side.
You’ve always been a private person. But you’re also out there, speaking on behalf of your causes. Do you feel more comfortable with that today?
I don’t think I ever will be, but that’s okay. I am who I am. I’d like to be able to go out jogging when I want to jog or play tennis without people noticing that I’m there. But I can mostly do that because Seattle’s a really welcoming place. And okay, if somebody points at me, oh well. I’m still hitting a bad tennis shot.
French Gates on MacKenzie Scott: “A great model” for giving
MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has given an estimated $12 billion to more than 1,200 nonprofits in less than three years.
Fortune: Does [Scott] represent a different approach to impact investing and philanthropic giving? With the Gates Foundation and Pivotal you’ve taken such a data driven, analytical approach to how you allocate money.
French Gates: I have huge respect for MacKenzie and for what she’s doing. I think she’s doing a more trust-based philanthropy. Don’t kid yourself that there aren’t analytics behind it, but she is creating a signal in the market by saying, “I’m trusting that this person [receiving the gift] knows how to do it.” She’s not building up a big organization and doing deep technical work, right? If you take our foundation, for the most part, we are deep technical experts with our partners. So with malaria, for example, we’re trying to create new vaccines. We’re trying to create new diagnostics and tools and new malarial bed nets and track the numbers. I call that deep technical work with our partners.
Do you think her giving will have a ripple effect on other philanthropists?
Absolutely, I definitely do. A lot of philanthropists come in and look at our foundation and say, “Oh, my God, I could never do that.” It takes a long time to build an institution. So people are looking for different ways to do it. I think her model is a great model, and I think you’ll see others follow it.
This article appears in the October/November 2022 issue of Fortune with the headline, “Tearing down ‘barriers that hold women back.'”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Pivotal Ventures as a nonprofit organization. It is an LLC.